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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Customer Understanding Drives “Cultish” Devotion to the Content People Love

January 29, 2014 | By Michelle Manafy, Editorial Director – DCN @michellemanafy
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Perspective matters. Be it a writer with a point of view or a brand inspiring cultish loyalty, delivering an engaging experience rather than information on its own is what will drive digital consumption and profitability. As Strauss Zelnick, founder of Zelnick Media put it, “what you do has to be compelling; it cannot be generic.” This experience, he believes, will deliver much more than those dreaded digital dimes. “We ought to get to digital dollars as we create engagement,” Zelnick confidently stated at the 12th Annual OPA Summit held January 22-24 in Miami.

As OPA President Pam Horan pointed out in her opening remarks, “It’s not content that people kinda like. Or content that people occasionally pay attention to. It’s about content that people genuinely love. And use.” That love, as several speakers pointed out, is driven by genuine enthusiasm about a given subject, be it business or celebrity gossip. As John Najarian, EVP/GM of Digital and Business Development at E! Entertainment put it, during the “Creating Content People Love” panel, “When you read a sports story or a business story, you can tell that there are people behind that category that are really passionate.” Fellow panelist Forbes Editor Randall Lane agreed that point of view has been integral to his brands’ success, but to it he adds credibility as the other key component in creating content that drives engagement.

Vox Media COO and Group Publisher Marty Moe said success “all starts with great content and an emphasis on social.” And to translate that into revenue, “it takes a combination of talent and technology.” However Moe did quip that, at Vox—which is known for such digitally native brands as the Verge and SBNation—“we have magazine envy” to which Forbes’ Lane replied, “You know… we’re for sale.”

Though as Zelnick pointed out, during his interview by Krishan Bhatia, EVP, Digital Strategy and Operations of NBCUniversal, his business (like that of Vox Media) does not “have to focus on a legacy business, so we can focus solely on the future.” This notion of the peril of protecting legacy businesses at the expense of preparing for the future was at the core of Digital First Media CEO John Patton’s talk, “Past Can’t Buy the Future.” Patton emphasized the need for media organizations to invest heavily in digital “because the profound changes in digital revenue streams will require huge investments in digital products and people.”

At Vox, according to Moe, “There’s no part of our business that owning and developing a very tailored, powerful technology platform doesn’t enable and improve — from how editors and writers publish the content, how we manage it, how we distribute it and how we advertise brands. Like the printing press was key to driving newspapers, our technology is as important to the way we are doing business.”

Even talent acquisition should take a turn for the technological according to speaker Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, who believes that “Technology will bridge the gap between the physical and digital world.” He points out that currently organizations lack effective mechanisms to find talent and the most popular tools and techniques are “notoriously biased”. He asserts that using gamification and profiling tools may “inject some order and accuracy into an area where the bar has been historically low.” He also echoed a point made earlier in the summit saying that “consumers, customers and readers are potentially your best employees as well.”

Having an intimate understanding of those passionate consumers was one of the most recurrent themes in the 12th Annual OPA Summit. For media companies, this customer knowledge drives content creation, product development and helps deliver optimized marketing opportunities. Day Three keynote speaker, Tony Tjan, CEO, Managing Partner and Founder of venture capital firm Cue Ball and Vice Chairman of the advisory firm Parthenon encouraged everyone in attendance to begin with a “front-end customer strategy rather than a go-to-market strategy.”

Closing speaker Wharton School marketing professor Peter Fader, also emphasized the need to put customer knowledge at the forefront of business strategy. He pointed out that there is no “the customer” and that generalizing in that way can be dangerous. It is essential, Fader asserts, to understand who our most valuable customers are and to not only be responsive to them, but to anticipate their future needs.” Fadar’s advice to media companies planning for current and future success: “Create a cult brand.” To do so, understand your audience with the intimacy of a trusted confidant to create genuine engagement that inspires devotion, trust — and a successful long-term relationship.

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